Anyone who has ever worked an office job knows the scene: there’s a management position opening up and hordes of people from all over the company are applying. Some companies have reputations of promoting from within and rewarding employees who have demonstrated hard work, loyalty, and potential to grow. Other companies prefer to bring in someone from another company to shake up the place and bring a new set of ideas. Both have their own sets of unique challenges. In some instances, everyone finds out they decided to go beyond the usual suspects and hired an outsider when the company finally makes the announcement. But it’s never easy to hire a foreigner.
For all intents and purposes, Peter DeBoer is as familiar to the New Jersey Devils as 9-7 games. Either way they’re out of their element.
The Devils are a team that has a reputation of hiring from within. From Larry Robinson to Jacques Lemaire to John MacLean, the Devils have preferred to hire known quantities. Even GM Lou Lamoriello has even hired himself to coach 53 regular season games since the lockout. Talk about the ultimate “known quality.” So when the Devils tabbed Peter DeBoer as their next head coach, more than a few curious eyebrows were raised in Lamoriello’s general direction. The Devils Army didn’t necessarily doubt the hire; they were just surprised that the long-time general manager would go so far outside his comfort zone.
Not only was there the tendency to hire from within, but they’ve also had a tendency to hire well-established coaches. For the Devils to thumb their noses at the well established candidates for a 43-year-old coach who struggled in his three year stint with the Florida Panthers was mildly surprising to say the least. Peter DeBoer was never the most likely candidate for the skeptics that try to predict these sorts of things. We heard, “Lamoriello obviously wants to go with an established coach who will command the locker room like Ken Hitchcock.” Another would say, “Now wait, the Devils have always been loyal to their own and Kirk Mueller is a hotshot assistant with a history in New Jersey, thus he must be the man.” Still others would chime in with, “They’ve always been an organization that placed an emphasis on defense, what better coach than someone like Guy Carbonneau?” By the time the Devils were finally ready to make their decision, people thought Michel Therrien would be the man for the job. Once again, the analysts were wrong.
In our everyday lives, everyone knows that the outsider will have a steep learning curve from the moment they are hired. The employees who remain onboard are not “new” employees—but they’re unique to the guy just starting out . They have to learn the various personalities and idiosyncrasies as they discover how to deal with their staff on a one-on-one basis. If they are coming into an environment with 30 staffers, they’ll have to individually earn the respect of all 30 people at some point. One by one, if they are successful they’ll have a strong foundation of respect among their staff for the future.
Like a manager in a 20-story office building or a foreman on construction site, DeBoer’s biggest challenge will be dealing with the kaleidoscope of personalities and personal expectations in the Devils’ locker room. Superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Martin Brodeur have a certain mix of ego and expectations their new coach will learn to cope with on a daily basis. Young players like Mattias Tedenby and Adam Larsson will have a completely different set of problems as they try to make the jump to “everyday NHLer.” Then there are the players who have been with the team for years and have experienced the highs and lows that have accompanied various coaches over the last few years. DeBoer’s main job, like any manager’s or each coach’s task, will be to get different types of people to buy into the same scheme. If it were easy, every fan in the stands would have a nice suit, a six-figure salary, and a much better seat.
If fans are outsiders from the team’s inner-sanctum of The Rock, then hockey writers 3000 miles away are in a bar across the street. I wanted to take the climate of Devils fans and the organization in general so I asked Hell On Ice and In Lou We Trust writer Kevin Sellathamby about the challenges DeBoer will have to immediately overcome if he wants to have success in Newark.
“The first obstacle would be Kovalchuk- does he use him on the right wing with Zach Parise or does he split the two to make opponents pick their poison (as in which tough competition line goes up against them). If anything, his relationship with MacLean had more to do with Jamie Langenbrunner’s actions than anything- so that’s not nearly as much of a worry seeing as Langenbrunner’s not a Devil anymore.
The second key would be the youth- considering Nick Palmieri, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, Mark Fayne and potentially Adam Larsson are part of the team next season, how he utilizes his young players will determine the team’s success. Does he have the confidence to let Tedenby and Josefson play in the top 6?
The last key would be goaltending- critics are right to worry about the goaltending, especially with Marty’s injury issues last year. Does DeBoer reduce Brodeur’s workload with Johan Hedberg around? Does Brodeur still get to play as many games as possible? If Brodeur does stay healthy, it might not be as much of an issue- but if Brodeur does get hurt, there might be some problems.”
Determining linemates and monitoring a goaltender’s workload are part of every coach’s job; the duties are doubly important for DeBoer considering the players involved. It’s imperative that any coach gets the most out of their superstars—whether it’s playing Parise and Kovalchuk together or giving their legendary goaltender a few more nights off during the course of the season. Hitchcock, Lemaire, Carbonneau, and Therrien all would have faced the same problems and all would have been equally equipped to handle the situations.
Where DeBoer separates himself is his (perceived) ability to handle young players who are christening their NHL careers. Before the NHL, DeBoer reached the playoffs in each of his 11 seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. He made the OHL Finals four separate times with Plymouth and Kitchener, won the J. Ross Robertson Cup (OHL champion) twice, and topped it off with a Memorial Cup win in 2003 with the help of Derek Roy, Mike Richards, Gregory Campbell, and David Clarkson.
He parlayed his success in the OHL into a job with the youthful Florida Panthers in 2008; the NHL organization hoped he could replicate his strong of success with young talent at the NHL level. Injuries and a lack of talent proved to be his downfall in South Beach, but times weren’t perfect during his tenure. Litter Box Cats headman Donny Rivette pointed out that the coach may have been prepared, but at times the team wasn’t on the same page:
“Yes, he was disciplined, and likely well prepared. His teams for the most part were not, evidenced by an astounding number of one-goal losses, an inability to mount a physical response to escalating situations, and a general lack of emotion displayed when the roster – and fans – could have used it. That his teams never openly revolted is amazing in hindsight, especially as rumors persist of riffs with his players, Tomas Vokoun being the likeliest candidate.”
Considering he is joining a team that saw its locker room splintered by a toxic relationship between coach and player, it’s imperative that he bonds the team into one cohesive unit focused on one specific goal. That’s the goal of every coach, but with last season’s very public disputes, DeBoer will need to create unity and trust as soon as possible. Jacques Lemaire showed what the Devils can do when they’re playing as a 20 man unit. John MacLean showed what would happen if the 20 players did as they pleased. It’s a double-edged sword for the incoming coach: on the one hand people know there’s potential for disaster because they’ve seen it happen; on the other hand, people know that a good coach can make this team a winner. The pieces are in place and there are no excuses.
Simply put: if he’s successful, he’ll be compared to Jacques Lemaire. If he’s not, he’ll be the 2011-12 version of John MacLean.
More important than the individual dynamics between each person and any newcomer is the office culture. It’s absolutely vital that the newcomer recognizes the culture and carves out their place as soon as possible. Good managers know that changing a culture is impossible overnight—it’s important to fit into the existing environment and gradually shift beliefs over time. DeBoer is walking into a place where their main strength is their continuity of culture. Players come and players go, but the team always maintains the highest expectations. Unlike his past NHL job, it won’t be his job to shape a team’s culture—just to act as a steward for the existing expectations.
The new guy never has it easy. We’ll see this year if Peter DeBoer is the right guy for the job.